HLAA member Zac La Fratta is on the cover of the first issue of 2013 of Hearing Loss Magazine, which is published bimonthly by the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). Zac wrote the cover feature for the January/February issue.
I was first introduced to Zac at his second HLAA convention (and my first) in Nashville, TN, in June 2009. Zac was in town this past November for meetings at the HLAA headquarters in Bethesda, MD, so we set up his cover photo session in and around the office.
Zac La Fratta joined HLAA five years ago and was appointed to the Board of Trustees in June 2010. He currently serves as the secretary and is a member of the executive and strategic planning committees. As a young adult serving on the board, Zac represents the voices of young adults with hearing loss. He formerly was vice president for the HLA-Boulder (CO) Chapter and as president/founder of the HLA-Washington, D.C. Chapter. He is also the moderator for HearingLossNation, an online community for young adults with hearing loss. (A link for that online community can be found on http://www.hearingloss.org.)
Hearing Loss Magazine pitched Zac a few questions and topics to comment on and he took the ball and ran. Here’s what Zac has to say about his hearing loss and changing careers mid-stream. All photos © Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.
Start at the beginning.
I was born in Denver, Colorado, on February 3, 1976. Mom checked into the hospital on a warm sunny day and checked out on a cold snowy day. I spent my childhood years in Dallas and went to high school in Lynchburg, Virginia. I have also been able to call Iowa, New York, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., home, throughout my life.
I am the second of six awesome children—four brothers and two sisters. All but two still live in Virginia, the others in Alabama and Colorado. My extended family is gigantic and I have lost track of the growing count of cousins, nephews, and nieces. Any type of reunion that takes place, big or small, is considered the party of the year.
Describe your hearing loss.
I have a stable bilateral, normal steeply sloping to profound sensorineural hearing loss acquired from exposure to bacterial meningitis at eight months of age. It is not clear whether meningitis or the ototoxic medications I received for treatment contributed to the hearing loss, but I consider myself extremely lucky that the hearing loss was the only negative outcome.
My first spoken words (according to dad) were “hold me” after persistent, unsuccessful requests to be held through gestures and crying. Sign language was actually my first language before I started talking around three years of age. After leaving a pre-school that promoted total communication, spoken language became my primary mode of communication. I once again started learning sign language shortly after I began embracing my hearing loss in my late twenties. I sign at a proficient skill level conversationally and in the audiology clinic.
My hearing loss has always been underestimated, perhaps because I received intensive speech therapy. Also, I never sought accommodations in high school or college. I’m not saying this was a good thing not to use accommodations, it’s just a fact. So, I always chuckle when audiologists are shocked and astonished after reviewing my audiogram.
Do you wear hearing aids or use assistive listening technologies?
I wore hearing aids for the first decade of my life before “putting them in the drawer” for nearly 20 years. I now proudly wear hearing aids after accepting my hearing loss. I’m currently in conversations of possibly pursuing a cochlear implant. I wear high-end, high-powered, behind-the-ear hearing aids with the receiver in the canal that uses a size-312 battery. This particular hearing aid is already two model-generations old! Being an audiology student has its fun privileges in that I get to try different hearing aid technologies. They really are quite different from one another as is each person’s hearing loss.
I use different assistive listening devices that use the telecoil features in a variety of situations. For watching television, listening to music, and talking on a cell phone, I take advantage of the SurfLink streaming feature that comes with my hearing aids. I occasionally use FM technology if it is readily available in large group settings. I heavily rely on closed-captioning technology. In fact, my family and friends automatically turn the closed-captioning on for me, and some even leave it on permanently. I recall my first closed-caption decoder box my parents got me for Christmas one year. It was one of the most memorable gifts I have ever received. I also won’t attend a movie showing unless some form of captioning is available.
Growing up with a hearing loss has been a roller coaster ride for me, manifesting throughout different phases in my life. I have experienced a range of emotions—embarrassment, confusion, anger, fear, depression, acceptance, and finally, peace.
I often wanted to forget I had a hearing loss, but with constant reminders from family, friends, and strangers, not to mention my own struggles, I could not escape reality. I would frequently be asked the same question along the lines of: “How can you hear on the phone?” “Are you Australian?” “Can you read their lips?” “Do you sign?” and on and on.
Tell us about going to school with a hearing loss.
I received early intervention services through The Callier Center at The University of Texas at Dallas and was mainstreamed in both private and public schools.
I have vivid memories at Callier of happily clanging bells with dozens of other children with hearing loss, to what was supposed to be the “Jingle Bells” tune. The proud parents in the audience merrily sang along as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I have many other good memories from my time at Callier. However, I do recall, even at this pre-school age, my gut feeling that something was off, especially when I was instructed to wear uncomfortably loud devices on my ears.
To my parents’ horror, I reacted by flushing those expensive devices down the toilet. This event was the beginning of my resistance to wear hearing aids and my resolve to be “normal.” As hard as I tried, there was no escaping my hearing loss as it presented various inevitable challenges throughout my life. I had my share of bullies and academic struggles during grade school. Although the bullies never went away, my academic struggles dissolved after receiving appropriate intervention in public school settings, even after I discontinued wearing hearing aids in junior high school.
Professions—past and present
In my determination to be a successful, normal person, I managed to get through college and enter the software consulting industry without any accommodations. I spent a decade in the IT industry as a business analyst working with Fortune 500 companies.
I felt accomplished and had success in this industry; however, I no longer had the passion or drive to maintain the intensity required to keep up with the demands of the job description. Much of my role consisted of client interviews, managing meetings, and handling conference calls, all of which are a nightmare for the person with a hearing loss, especially without the use of assistive listening technologies or other accommodations.
I came to the realization that I had reached my peak and landed on a plateau in terms of fulfilling dreams and ambitions. I knew instinctively that in order for me to grow and move forward, I had to acknowledge my hearing loss and be comfortable and willing to ask for help.
However, I admit, by this time I was burned out and ready for a new career that inspired me, yet I didn’t want unnecessary hardship. I know it’s unrealistic that a new career wouldn’t bring challenges but this is the way I felt at the time. I needed a break from the day-to-day hassle of communicating on the job.
So…what happened next?
In 2007, my audiologist in Colorado asked me to interview with NBC’s Colorado & Company to share my experiences wearing new hearing aids for the first time in nearly two decades. (Remember, I denied my hearing loss and didn’t wear them.) There was an audiologist on the set and to my pleasant surprise, he also had a hearing loss and wore hearing aids. I was inspired learning about his journey.
The light bulb went off immediately and I knew a career in audiology was my calling. The following year, I was a registered full-time student at Colorado University at Boulder to fulfill the prerequisites required to enter an audiology program. At the time, it made perfect sense for me to pursue audiology as a profession. Having a hearing loss myself, I wanted to find new ways to contribute to the community of people with hearing loss. I was interested in working with children with hearing loss and their parents. I also had a burning desire to understand my own hearing loss from a clinical view and obtain the best resources available to make my life easier.
I am completing my clinical doctorate studies at Gallaudet University’s audiology program and will graduate in August 2013. Meanwhile, I am completing my externship (a.k.a. “residency”) at the audiology clinic at the University of Colorado Hospital. I also serve as an audiology LEND Fellow with the JFK Partners program in Colorado to continue my training with pediatric audiology through various multi-disciplinary models.
I’ve completed clinical audiology rotations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area at an ENT private practice, Children’s National Medical Center, and The River School. I am also proud to work with several programs at the Marion Downs Hearing Center in Colorado, including Campus Connections, Building Communication Bridges, Infant Hearing Screening Program, and Teen Day. In addition, I had the privilege of teaching the Peer Mentoring Certification Training Program at Gallaudet University for two years.
Describe a typical day in your externship.
I am fortunate to be completing my externship at the University of Colorado Hospital because it provides a great, all-around experience. In addition to working with audiology’s bread and butter—administering hearing tests and working with amplification technologies with a diverse population—I also work with balance testing, cochlear implants, and infant hearing screenings. My favorite part of my externship experience is counseling. From my personal experience, I can connect with many of my clients, especially parents of children with hearing loss.
I have a supporting cast who believes in me, instills in me the confidence and courage to be the best I can be, and above all, loves me. I can’t underestimate the power of my family, mentors, and friends when it came to encouragement and support.
After having worked with parents in the audiology clinic, I discovered that I took for granted the challenges my own parents experienced to ensure I lived a great and normal life. I am forever grateful for how they raised me, taught me independence, and always provided a sense of belonging. They did an amazing job even with limited educational resources for kids with hearing loss.
My brothers and sisters also are a big part of who I am. They provided the social inclusion and unconditional love I needed during my childhood. They showed me how to be creative and silly. We had fun growing up and they created a safe haven for me to be myself. Since I am second to the oldest, I babysat my siblings on a regular basis, and it was always fun to create games and activities to keep them entertained. My brothers and sisters intuitively understood my hearing loss, oftentimes sacrificing their own needs for mine. They accepted that my hearing loss was a part of who I am and accommodating me was part of our family’s daily routine.
I am lucky to have the quality of friends I have made over the years. I didn’t have an abundance of friends growing up, but the ones I made were compassionate and trustworthy. As a kid, I latched onto friends who had similar interests and didn’t get bored doing the same things over and over (boxcars, Transformers, and G.I. Joe’s!). Eventually, we grew out of toys and took on sports.
Like my family, my friends never let my hearing loss interfere with our friendship. My friends might never have fully understood my hearing loss, but they always had my back. There were even practical jokes at the expense of my hearing loss but I knew I was accepted as one of the gang.
A favorite story was on a Halloween night. We were dressed in fun costumes and enjoying ourselves. One of my friends, known for his one-liners, got everyone hooked on over-enunciating one particular line from a movie throughout the night—“What the problem is?” (A line void of good grammatical form so it was hard to grasp.)
The problem was I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what they were saying all night. I finally had the courage to ask, “Are you saying ‘hippopotamus?’” And with that for the remainder of the night, “hippopotamus” was the new one-liner.
My mentors—a few teachers and speech-language pathologists—were pivotal in how I connected and fit in with mainstream society. We spent countless hours working on my speech and academic skills, as well as boosting my self-esteem. To this day, I have been unsuccessful in tracking them down to show my appreciation to all they have contributed. (If by some miracle you are reading this, I thank you!)
There is no one who understands me and my hearing loss as well as my girlfriend, Maureen Shader, whom I affectionately call Mo. More importantly, there is no one who has as much patience in regard to my hearing loss as she does. It amazes me the sacrifices she has made over the past few years to contribute to our powerful and fulfilling relationship. Mo does it all! It is the little things like her continuing efforts to face me when she speaks, constantly carrying hearing aid batteries in her purse, sitting quietly with boredom in the car while I drive (driving poses a large obstacle to lipreading), and giving up our time together while I put time into advocacy projects for those with hearing loss.
Without question, Mo is my biggest supporter and advocate. It certainly helps that she is also an audiology student and is proficient in sign language. We have a running joke that all that is missing is for her to have a hearing loss too. I thought I was destined to have a relationship with a woman with a hearing loss, someone who could walk in my shoes. In reality, I could not be more grateful that Mo doesn’t have a hearing loss. I admit it is nice to have a good set of ears around. As it should be, our different levels of hearing doesn’t matter. It’s about the person and the values you have in common, not the hearing loss. But it does help that she understands.
Hey Zac, did you have anything to do with you?
While all the important people in my life have been a solid foundation, okay, I’ll give myself a little bit of credit. Early in my life, I spent much of my time playing soccer and tennis since it was an easy way to escape from all of my struggles. My parents understood how important this was for me, so mom became a soccer mom and dad was my biggest fan. Winning and stardom on the playing field made me feel good about myself, so naturally I was determined to win off the field too, just so I could feel normal and accepted.
My family and friends can attest to this, I became fiercely competitive in everything I did, which I now know was annoying and exhausting for those close to me. But this tactic was my survival card, getting me through school, bullies, and feeling vulnerable. After college, this behavior became less and less effective and useful in my life. It is not a coincidence that after accepting my hearing loss, I discovered that this trait was unhealthy, so I began to channel my competitiveness in a productive manner in everything I do. I am able to use this new tool to accomplish things that benefit the community and society and are important for myself to feel like I’m making a contribution.
Tell us more about how you think people see you.
The consensus among my family and friends is that they often forget that I have a hearing loss. I honestly don’t believe that is true, rather they are fully aware but do not perceive my hearing loss as a disadvantage or a disability for me since they simply do not find themselves needing to compromise their own lives to accommodate me. However, they can recall quite a few occasions where they’ve advocated for me, remembered funny stories related to my hearing loss, or are reminded of events pertaining to my hearing loss.
When I am socializing, people often ask my friends or family members why I speak the way I do, why I am standoffish, why I frequently need repetition, or simply say “what’s up with the hearing aids?” Occasionally, people who are aware about hearing loss (through their own family members, friends, or co-workers) will inquire about my hearing loss.
My family always shares that they are inspired by how I’ve handled my many adversities—such as educational and social challenges. One of my brothers reflected that after having gone through middle and high school himself, which he considers one of the more difficult challenges of life, is left inspired that I was able to work through the same challenges in addition to having a hearing loss.
One of my sisters believes that I compensate for my hearing loss with a sixth-sense, or super-hero ability. She reflects that this trait equates to my determination to excel, especially when faced with challenges.
The family also has tons of fun with my hearing loss too. Long ago, audiologists told my dad that I have some residual low-frequency hearing, so he brilliantly exaggerates a low voice when he calls my name. My family and friends think it is hilarious, but it works! The whole family loves home signs, particularly “bathroom,” “stop,” and “hurry.” My family also never lets me forget how I have funny ways of saying words like “ridiculous” and “scissors” or how I am constantly mixing up idioms.
Tell us about getting involved with HLAA.
When I made the decision (and yes, it was a decision) in 2004 to accept my hearing loss, I went all out by launching “Deaf-inite Entertainment”—a fund-raising project to raise awareness among the hearing loss community. It was an exciting project that raised funds to provide a free open-captioned showing of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the local theater and to donate to the Starkey Hearing Foundation.
During this project, I met many wonderful people with hearing loss, including Debbie Mohney from the HLA-Boulder (CO) Chapter. Debbie planted the seed for me to join the chapter because she knew it was an opportunity for me to expand my role in the community of people with hearing loss.
Her patience and persistence paid off when she convinced me to attend my first chapter meeting in 2007. Debbie wasn’t kidding that I’d benefit from joining this chapter, because a few months later I attended my first HLAA Convention in Reno in 2008 thanks to a scholarship the HLA-Boulder Chapter awarded me. It was at this convention that I met a small group of young adults with hearing loss for the first time. I had never been in the presence of so many people my age with a hearing loss!
To say I haven’t looked back since then is an understatement. I always was a happy person, compensating for my hearing loss in the most competitive ways. But it wasn’t until I accepted my hearing loss—even embraced it as I like to describe my experience—that I began to understand the significance it’s had on my life.
Moving forward, there are a lot of things to do in both my personal and professional life. First on the list is to find ways to get more young adults with hearing loss involved in HLAA. Read on about the 100 Portland initiative. I hope to see you in Portland, Oregon, this June for HLAA Convention 2013.
Zac La Fratta lives in Denver, Colorado. In addition to his studies and the 100 Portland project, he enjoys playing tennis, dining out with his girlfriend, traveling to new places, and spending time with friends and family. He recently discovered the joys of cooking and experimenting with different recipes. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.
Also in this issue: Zac La Fratta debuts 100 Portland, an initiative to attract young adults, ages 18-35, with hearing loss to come to HLAA Convention 2013 in Portland, Oregon, this June; audiologist Brad Ingrao’s article, A Rose by Any Other Name: PSAPs vs. Hearing Aids, takes a close-up look at hearing devices advertised on TV and in magazines; HLAA’s Director of Marketing and Events, Nancy Macklin, shares highlights for the upcoming Convention 2013; Stephen O. Frazier and Sally Schwartz discuss induction loop technology in their article, The Often-Neglected Neck Loop; audiologist Mark Ross reveals why simply giving a person who is elderly a hearing aid doesn’t always get to the heart of the matter of not hearing well in his article, Older People with Hearing Loss: Aural Rehabilitation Might be More Necessary than Ever; Sally Edwards writes about how life doesn’t always go as planned, especially when a hearing loss interrupts those plans, in Labors of Love; and HLAA member and Reeses Peanut Butter Cup lover Gary Trompower is profiled in Seen & Heard.
KNOW SOMEONE WITH HEARING LOSS? Give them a gift membership to the Hearing Loss Association of America. Visit www.hearingloss.org for more information.